Blue Jays announce plans to manipulate Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s service time

Craig Calcaterra

In one of the least surprising moves of the offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays have, more or less, announced they plan to keep top prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr. at Triple-A to start the season.

As reported by Keegan Matheson of BaseballToronto.com, Jays GM Ross Atkins said “There’s no firm timeline on when he arrives or when he is playing in Toronto for the first time,” adding that they want to make sure he’s  “the best possible third baseman and the best possible hitter he can be.” That’s a variation on the old, cliche “we want him to work on his defense, thing, but it’s the same excuse, even if gussied up a bit.

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Which is to say that the Jays fully plan on keeping Guerrero down on the farm until he cannot accrue a full year of service time in 2019, thereby pushing back his arbitration and free agency clock a year. Unless, of course, you believe that a few weeks at Buffalo will totally transform the guy. Until then Brandon Drury will be the starter at third base.

Last year, when Guerrero was not called up to the Blue Jays when rosters expanded in September, team president Mark Shapiro said it had nothing to do with business and that it was all about baseball. No one bought that then and there’s no reason to buy that now. Guerrero hit .381/.437/.636 with 20 home runs and 78 RBI in 408 minor league plate appearances last year. He is, without question, the top hitting prospect in baseball. Heading into the season he is the #1-rated prospect according to Baseball America, MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus. ESPN’s Keith Law has him at number 2, though he says “[f]or pure bat, Vlad Jr. is the best prospect in the minors.” He has absolutely nothing to prove at Triple-A and anyone who suggests otherwise is full of it.

But, as we’ve noted many times before, there is every business and financial reason in the world for the Blue Jays to do this. The nature of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and its rules regarding service time could not set forth a more clear incentive for the front office to keep Guerrero down on the farm. While, yes, Guerrero is clearly major league-ready now and while, yes, Jays fans deserve to see the best players the organization can put on the field, keeping Guerrero down is absolutely the smart financial move to make if you work for the Blue Jays front office. Which is to say: save me your comments about how, of COURSE the Jays doing this is smart. I get it.

But what’s smart and what’s right is not always the same thing. The Jays may be making a good short-term business move, but they’re treating an employee poorly. Just put yourself in Guerrero’s place: you’re deserving of a promotion and your boss tells you, “no, you’re not getting it for a while became we want to save the money.” Maybe you understand that intellectually, but you’re not happy about it, are you? If you say “yes, you’re happy about it” you’re a big liar, by the way, but you know that.

It’s also a bummer for fans. The Blue Jays stunk last year, they stunk the year before and they’re looking poised to stink this year too. A lot of fans would love to have that stink mitigated by the ability to see their team’s best prospect in years, maybe in decades, suit up with the team to start the season. But again, not smart, I suppose, and smart is everything with Major League Baseball these days.

It’s possible that, like Kris Bryant and others, Guerrero and his agent will file a grievance against the Jays over this. I also suspect — strongly — that if they do, they will lose. As I said: the CBA is clear and the rules and incentives in place for the manner in which they are handling Guerrero are plain. They can do this and they are doing it. Teams will continue to do this unless and until there is a change in the CBA.

But that doesn’t mean you should be happy about.

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